A joke about economic methodology

This is a joke that I heard many times and once on a big stage at the 2014 annual meeting of the Verein für Socialpolitik where some supposedly important person from a supposedly important central bank (if I recall correctly) used it as a criticism of current economic methodology (as this person understood it) and generalizing it to mean it as a criticism of any economic methodology that uses math (if I understood this person correctly).

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Economic Illiteracy: a public health issue

As a teacher of economics, I am always looking for good examples of economic illiteracy – a newspaper article or maybe a speech by a politician evincing a deep ignorance of simple economic principles. Unfortunately for me, such pieces are few and far between. Imagine, therefore, my delight when I read the following headline:

“When supplies of drugs run low, drug prices mysteriously rise, data shows”

At first, I was convinced that the author was just kidding, that this was a good piece of satire. But no. This is serious.

Here are some highlights:

When nearly 100 drugs became scarce between 2015 and 2016, their prices mysteriously increased more than twice as fast as their expected rate, an analysis recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reveals. The price hikes were highest if the pharmaceutical companies behind the drugs had little competition, the study also shows.

The authors—a group of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and one at Harvard Medical School—can’t say for sure why the prices increased just based off the market data. But they can take a shot at possible explanations. The price hikes “may reflect manufacturers’ opportunistic behavior during shortages, when the imbalance between supply and demand increases willingness to pay,” they conclude.

Now, this would all be really funny, if it wasn’t the product of a group of highly respected researchers in medicine from top universities published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. But it becomes a public health issue when people end up making policy conclusions on economic illiteracy:

To combat potentially exploitative hikes, the authors offer a recommendation:

If manufacturers are observed using shortages to increase prices, public payers could set payment caps for drugs under shortage and limit price increases to those predicted in the absence of a shortage.

Yes, you guessed it: price controls are the obvious solution to a shortage-induced price increase. Face, meet palm!


Defining power

During the course of a recent online discussion, David Friedman raised the question of how to define “patriarchy” in particular and “power” more generally.

I gave the following answer which I’m sharing with you in order to elicit broader commentary (ideally from people who actually know something about social choice theory):

Conceptually, defining “power” should be straightforward.

Borrowing from standard social choice terminology, under any Social Welfare Function, which maps from the set of all preference profiles (list of policy preference rankings, one for every member of the society) to a unique social preference ranking, if my preferences correlate more with the social preferences than yours (where correlation is defined in an appropriate way), I am more powerful.

In a dictatorship, the correlation is 1 if I’m the dictator.

In a democracy, the correlation is high if I’m the median voter, low if I’m a member of the political fringe.

Patriarchy is then a system in which men’s policy preferences are more highly correlated with the social preferences than women’s.

David raised the following problem with my definition:

Suppose one percent of the population prefer outcome A to outcome B, ninety-nine percent the other way around. The social preference function, in situations where it has to choose between the two, chooses A two percent of the time.

The group of people who prefer B have more power than the group who prefer A, but does it make sense to say that an individual member of the group has more power? Might it make more sense to use a definition in which the question is not whether the social choice function correlates with my preferences but whether a change in my preferences produces a change in the social choice function in the same direction?

I think that’s a very good point. So here is my updated definition of power:

If changes in A’s preference ranking are more highly correlated with changes in the social preference ranking than changes in B’s preference ranking are, A is more powerful than B.

Is this how people in social choice have always defined power? If not, is there a deep problem with this definition which didn’t occur to me?